Overall, Gilliard’s book raises issues that are very important for Christians to take seriously. He makes a compelling case that the War on Drugs, immigration laws, the state of public education, mental health, and private prisons have all contributed to the huge and rapidly growing prison population. Gilliard rightly argues that a biblical view of justice involves more than punishment; it also involves the restoration of the victim, the creation of systems that promote human flourishing, and the dissolution of systems which prevent it.
Given the emphasis that Gilliard places on ‘systems of oppression’ and the need for ‘systemic transformation’ I was surprised at how little of the book was devoted to explicit legislative changes that needed to be implemented. Indeed, in his final chapter, “Holy Interruptions” which is subtitled “Dismantling Mass Incarceration” only half of his examples involved systemic reforms (initiated internally by the DOJ or by members of the law enforcement community) while the other half involved local church organizations working within existing systems to reach prisoners, at-risk youth, and the formerly incarcerated. In this sense, Gilliard is actually very moderate, balancing a ‘liberal’ critique of systemic problems with a recognition that ‘conservative’ approaches to change through individuals and local churches also have great value.
Despite his moderate tone and his admirable concern for an area of great need in our society, the theological problems with Gilliard’s work are grave. He explicitly rejects the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, which is at the heart of historic Protestant and evangelical theology. And he does so not for exegetical reasons, but -apparently- because he sees a conflict between the doctrine and his commitment to his view of criminal justice reform.
The tragedy of this denial is that there is no actual conflict between the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) and criminal justice reform. To affirm that Jesus bore our punishment on the cross is not to affirm that the state can hand out whatever punishment it likes. This conclusion is not an application of PSA but an abuse of PSA. And evaluating a doctrine according to its abuse is dangerous. Would we deny the truth of Christianity because the truth of Christianity has been used to justify religious violence? Hopefully not.
Gilliard even seems to realize that there’s no necessary connection between PSA and indifference towards the incarcerated. One of the organizations that Gilliard praises for its work with prisoners is New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary which offers theological education for inmates, leading to numerous inmate-led church plants reaching thousands of prisoners (p. 194-195). Yet, as a Southern Baptist Seminary, NOBTS is officially committed to substitutionary atonement. In the same way, Gilliard recognizes that Chuck Colson created one of the largest prison ministries in the U.S. and was a steadfast advocate for prisoners, despite his unwavering belief in PSA (p 108-110). So there seems to be no reason to insist that if we care about criminal justice reform, we ought to jettison PSA.
My main concern is that Christians who share Gilliard’s passion for justice will uncritically accept his views on PSA as well. There is a great danger here. Denominations that have altered or downplayed doctrine in order to emphasize social engagement have, historically, lost both the transformative power of the gospel and -ironically- the spiritual and physical resources to effect real change. For Christian activism to be truly Christian, it must be driven by the gospel, the doctrine that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. Thus, it is a mistake to try to enhance Christian engagement in justice (or in anything else) at the expense of sound doctrine. While we can appreciate a great deal of what Gilliard says in Rethinking Justice, we must read it critically, insisting that the Bible must remain our ultimate authority on all issues and letting the Bible challenge even our strongly held beliefs.